Growing up, the L. Frank Baum Oz series was my Harry Potter. I loved Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, Tip, Jack, The Wizard, the witches….all of the wonder and magic of this multi-book series. (Baum wrote the first fourteen himself, while others picked up the Oz mantle for another twenty-plus novels). Folks who know The Wizard of Oz only from the Judy Garland movie will be shocked to know how dark Baum’s novels really were, and how ahead of their time they were. His works anticipated such century-later commonplaces as television, augmented reality, laptop computers, wireless telephones, and women in high risk, action-heavy occupations.
In the Eighties, a sequel of sorts was made, Return to Oz, starring Fairuza Balk. It was not a huge hit, due to the film’s dark tone and subject matter, although that film was closer to Baum’s vision than the 1934 version. It also was not a musical, which was problematical for the film’s success. Then again, the Oz books were never very musically inclined.
We’ve since had Wicked, both the novel and the Broadway musical which emphasizes Baum’s piercing social commentary, and Oz the Great and Powerful with James Franco, which captured some of the characters in the books we usually don’t see on screen, was also dark, and was also a cinematic miss.
Now NBC has given us Emerald City, a modernized take on the Oz books. The two hour premiere aired Friday, January 6th, and this Oz fan was left speechless The series is very true to the storyline of the original novels (and if you are watching the series and haven’t read the books, you are going to be so blown away at the plot’s twists and turns!), emanates the darkness of the series, and brings us a new look (and more genuine one) at the characters we’ve grown up loving and hating.
The diverse cast is tremendous – Adria Arjona as Dorothy is just the right mix of tough, nurturing (she’s a nurse back in Kansas), and confused. Oliver Jackson-Cohen is one handsome “Scarecrow” with no memory (get it? He needs a brain!), anger issues, and a magic sword. Ana Ularu steals the show as the drugged out, unpredictable witch of the west and Joely Richardson is confounding as Glinda – is she a good witch or a bad witch? Florence Kasumba controls the screen as the witch of the East (and do I ever want her gloves!), and Vincent D’Onofrio is one whiz of a wizard….so not a nice guy. I won’t give out any spoilers about Tip, Jack, the Tin Man or the Cowardly Lion, but when they appear on screen, you will be amazed, I guarantee it.
The visuals are spectacular. This is an Oz we’ve never seen before, but those of us Baum-ites are reveling in. The “yellow brick road” is made of poppies, giant statues stand as guardians over the Emerald City, the prison is made of inescapable mud and ooze, and flying monkeys are clockwork “video recorders.” This is a heady mix of magic – a bit Lord of the Rings, a bit Game of Thrones – and steampunk (remember, Baum was ahead of his time).
Thank you to Matthew Arnold who pitched the darker, edgier retelling, to director Tarsem Singh, to showrunner David Schulner and to executive producer Shaun Cassidy. I’m in love, and I’m not alone, because as of 11 pm east coast time Emerald City was trending #1 on Twitter.
Go watch the show. Better yet, go back and read the original books. It’s about time Baum is back!